Henry Baptiste said Tuesday he lived in the waiting rooms of local hospitals until a security guard noticed.
A U.S. Navy swift boat sailor who saw combat on the rivers of Vietnam in the late 1960s, Baptiste said he signed up for job interviews at Louisiana’s first “Stand Down,” a benefits fair for homeless military veterans.
“This is exciting to me,” Baptiste said while eating crawfish étouffée in the courtyard of the Scott School Apartments on 19th Street. He was one of 55 homeless veterans receiving services at the “Stand Down.”
On any given night, up to 1,000 people are homeless in Baton Rouge, about 20 percent of whom are military veterans, said Randy Nichols, executive director of the Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless, which does an annual census of homeless people in Baton Rouge.
A number of organizations around the country have held similar activities for homeless veterans, also called “Stand Downs.” During the Vietnam War, a “Stand Down” was a place of safe retreat for units returning from combat operations. At the secured base, soldiers could clean up, have a meal, catch up on letters home, and relax.
Robin Keller, press secretary for the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs, said the state’s “Stand Down” is not connected to the events staged by other groups to help homeless veterans. “It’s just a generic name for this type of event,” she said.
Louisiana’s gathering was funded with a $7,000 grant by the U.S. Labor Department, Keller said.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Lane Carson said he wants to do more “Stand Down” events, perhaps in different cities.
The homeless veterans arrived early for breakfast, a shower and a haircut. They received a medical screening, housing and job assistance. They were interviewed by officials trying to match programs and benefits to the former soldiers, sailors and airmen.
Each received a knapsack with socks and underwear, soap and toothpaste. After lunch, the homeless vets received vouchers to ride the bus to shelters, clinics and various government agencies.
Many of the homeless unfolded copies of their discharge papers as they entered the community room where agencies had set up tables.
Glenn Hebert of the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs spoke with many of the veterans first as they walked into the room. Chatting is a helpful first step to figuring out which of the myriad of government programs might work for a particular homeless veteran’s situation, he said.
“We have enough experience to understand what people may need and what they may be entitled to,” Hebert said.
Tables were set up by organizations. For instance, one table helped veterans diagnosed with HIV/AIDS find housing. Another helped the veterans find counseling for substance abuse.
Tommie Ashby, regional nurse for the state Department of Health and Hospitals’ Office of Public Health, helped perform medical screenings.
“We’re finding some abnormally high blood pressures,” Ashby said. She says part of the reason is that the diets of the homeless are not regular or particularly good and that they don’t often see doctors.
Ashby, whose father was the first documented homeless person in Baton Rouge, said the government programs, the availability of shelters and hot meals, even public awareness, is much better now than just a few years ago. And that helps bring the homeless back to a stable situation, she said.
A government employee beside Ashby put bananas and bottled water into a homeless vet’s knapsack.
“We have come a long way,” Ashby said.